Two Weeks in Japan, Part 6 (The End): Tokyo vol. III

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 6: Tokyo vol. II

For our third day in Tokyo we were visiting Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. We got to the island early using the Yurikamome train, a fully automated train without drivers on board. I was surprised to see that the train does not run on rails but has wheels with tires instead (so maybe there is a better name for it than train)!

In Odaiba we went to the Sega Joypolis, a theme park by the well known games company Sega. The park has many nice attractions like a half-pipe (with a series of snowboard-like devices/wagons where two people can stand at a time), many enhanced video-games (for example a rollercoaster where we had to shoot zombies) or an experience inspired by a horror movie. This horror experience was based on the movie Sadako 3D (with a terrifying girl like the one in the Ring movie), we were taken to a dark room with a few computer screens that suddenly started malfunctioning! Our guide (speaking Japanese) tried to turn them off and had to unplug to do so but they quickly turned on again (oooohhh)! Helena and I were very tired (it was evening already) so we were not really excited by the whole scary experience and this must have been so clear in our expressions that the guide switched to English and told us: Very dangerous! Very very dangerous! Run run!

Another thing that I enjoyed seeing was that the Joypolis had many interactive installations using methods similar to the ones I was working with at the time. Check out this live hair change to make queuing less boring:

Love Helena’s air style!

The Joypolis is an indoors park and before we knew, night had fallen so we just had dinner and went back to the hotel.

No fear, Gundam’s here!

The next day we headed to Yokohama, to visit the rāmen museum and later to a town called Kamakura. I had seen the rāmen museum in some movies and I had three wrong assumptions about it: 1) it’s in Tokyo (it’s not, it is in Yokohama), 2) it’s an open air place (it’s in a basement floor) and 3) it’s a big place (it’s rather small). Still, I liked it because we learned a bit about rāmen, it is possible to try several types of it and learn from which regions it comes from, the atmosphere is good and there was a magic/juggling show going on.

Rāmen museum under a beautiful sky

Rāmen museum under a beautiful sky

We also took the chance to visit the Yokohama’s China town with its complex colors and architecture contrasting with the Japanese ones. We entered a Chinese temple and I started taking pictures as I saw no sign forbidding it. Suddenly a lady starts yelling at me, telling me to stop taking photos and basically pushed me out the temple… This also contrasted with the laid back and respectful attitude of the guards in the Japanese temples that had asked me to stop taking photos before. In my defense, after almost two weeks in Japan, I was quite used to look for signs forbidding photos but I hadn’t seen any when entering this Chinese temple because we entered through a side door and the sign was hanged outside over the main door.

After Yokohama, we went to Kamakura, a small town whose main attraction is the giant Buddha statue (daibutsu) with almost 14 meters of height. The statue is impressive and the place is quite peaceful so I definitely recommend it.

Giant buddha statue

Peaceful place

That night we went back to the nice rāmen place I mentioned in the first volume of the Tokyo’s part, in Ikebukuro (I wish I could remember the name of the place…), and got back to our hotel to get ready for our last day in Tokyo.

For our last day in Tokyo, we wanted to check out the fish market but we realized that it had strict rules to visit it and we had to be there very early, so we decided to take it easy (we were tired for the almost two weeks of moving around) and just went there a bit later in the morning. Naturally, the whole frenzy fish selling was no longer taking place so we just bought a few things in some small stands there like nori sheets (they were way cheaper there than back at home) and some beans which we thought were the nice tea we had tried in a few restaurants. When we got home and tried the tea, the beans were tinier than we remembered and they looked like coffee beans (the drink also tasted a bit like very weak coffee) so we just thought that we had bought some very bad coffee. The funny thing is that one year after the trip to Japan, we moved to the Geneva area (where I am currently working at CERN) and shortly after a German PhD student named Christian started working in my office, he knows a lot about tea and Japan (even speaks the language) and he told me those beans were actually roasted barley tea (or mugi cha). Mystery solved!

After the fish market, we went to the nice district of Asakusa, to visit Sensō-ji, one of the most impressive temples in our trip. In there we did the traditional custom of giving a donation and getting a small note telling your fortune. About mine, I won’t disclose everything but among some nice things it said “Building a new horse and enlarging are both good”. No kidding!

A buddhist temple in Asakusa

Sensō-ji

Close to the temple, we went to a nice sushi restaurant, with a conveyor belt surrounding a chef making the sushi in real time. We had been to sushi restaurants with the conveyor belt in other places in Europe and they all followed a “flat-rate” model (pay one fixed price, eat all the sushi you want), however, in Japan the common thing is that each dish has a color which indicates its price and in the end they sum it all and you pay. Still, the sushi was great and not that expensive.
Once we finished visiting Asakusa, we headed to the Tokyo University through a nice park with an impressive pond called Shinobazu, full of waterlilies, fish, ducks and turtles.

Shinobazu pond.

Shinobazu pond.

The last night in Tokyo we changed again to the last hotel of the trip (Narita U-City), this one was outside of Tokyo close to the Keisei Narita Station, on the way to the airport because we figured that the next day it would be simpler and faster to get the airport from there, and being away from Tokyo it means it was also cheaper.

The next day, we started our trip early and we saw a very long queue waiting for the KLM’s desks to open. So we waited, and waited, and waited and realized that our flight was delayed… We must have waited more than 3 hours in the queue which never got smaller.
Eventually they started opening the desks but it was clear that they were very badly organized. Finally, after all that time waiting, when we got to the counter, the lady tells us that she thought our backpacks were too big for hand luggage. I replied they were actually smaller than they looked and that we traveled all the time with them. She said that we had to try to fit them in the appropriate metal frame for the matter and we could go there, check and come back to tell her the verdict. I told her that the metal thingy was out of her sight and that maybe she wanted to come with us to check, otherwise she would have to just trust me and so far, she hadn’t wanted to do that. She looked at me with an expression of “Oh! So someone could actually lie to me!?” (Japanese people, always so innocent) and followed us. The bags fit and we got our tickets!
I was worried that the plane would be so delayed that we would miss the flight from Amsterdam to Barcelona, not only because of the hassle but also because from although the flight from to Barcelona was part of our ticket, once we arrived in Barcelona, we had a flight home to Coruña which was bought independently. Luckily, once we landed in Amsterdam, some assistants were waiting for everyone who was going to Barcelona as the plane had already boarded but was waiting for the people from Tokyo. We arrived with time in Barcelona but guess what, our flight to Coruña was also delayed (but at least we didn’t miss it).
All summed up, we had been traveling for more than 24 hours and needless to say, we were dead tired. I even remembered waking up the next morning with the feeling of having slept really well like I had not in ages and thinking “it is good to be home”.

Photo of Helena and I

Finally I am finishing this series of articles. Since the trip took place, and I started writing its articles, almost three years passed by (!) but I got a good excuse as a lot of things happened. I have changed to a different country (and job) twice, and I am now a father, so far an incredibly rewarding, exciting and ongoing journey.

Until the next time!

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 6: Tokyo vol. II

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 6: Tokyo vol. I

For our second day in Tokyo, August the 19th 2012, we first visited the Sony Building in the fancy district of Ginza. The building has several floors, each one with a bunch of Sony gadgets. It is not very interesting unless you’re into technology and you like Sony.

Tokyo Imperial Palace

After that, we tried to visit the Kabuki-za theater nearby but it was, unfortunately, under construction so we had lunch in a rāmen place nearby.
After lunch, we visited the Imperial Palace in the heart of Tokyo. Of course we could not enter the actual palace but just seeing the surroundings is nice, especially because I remembered the place from some documentaries I had watched.
In there, another very Japanese anecdote happened: we had stoped for a minute (it was hot as hell), and when we were already leaving, we realized we had lost our map (just a regular paper map but it had our itinerary) so we went back to the little security guard cabin to ask if they saw it and they had it! They saw it flying around, picked it up and kept it in case the owner came back 🙂

Kyoto's Imperial Palace

Yours truly in front of the Tokyo Imperial Palace

Tokyo Tower

Tokyo Tower

The next step in our trip schedule was to visit the Tokyo Tower, and go there by foot. It seemed to be so close to the Imperial Palace in the map but with the heat and our tired feet, although it took us just about 1 hour to get there, it felt like much more.
We might have waited around 15 minutes in the line before going up. With 333 meters (2 meters more than the Eiffel Tower), the view over Tokyo was awesome and it even had a window in the floor so you can stand on it and imagine what’d happen to you if you fell 🙂

View from the Tokyo Tower

Yoyogi Park

After the Tokyo Tower, we headed to the Yoyogi Park. This park is world famous for the rockabilly style dancers performing in there but this wasn’t the only interesting thing that it had. It is very big and a lot of people were doing different activities in there, from a drums group, to lousy music bands and group gimnastics or dancing. When we were watching the rockabillies’ performing and taking their photo, there was a drunk japanese old man taking photos of western tourists, including Helena’s. Later, walking through the park, we saw how he would try to participate in every activity he passed by. He was kind of screwing the group dancing session so what did the group leaders do? Instead of telling him to go away, they kept moving the group of around 20 people away from the guy, several times. Oh, and the guy was drunk and drinking beer can after beer can but he had a bag of trash with him and kept all the cans, never littering. Gotta love Japanese education.

Rockabillies in Yoyogi Park

Roppongi Hills

The night was finished in the rich area of Roppongi Hills. It was like a fancy mall, with expensive stores, live music and restaurants here and there. We went the cheap way instead, got our food from 7-Eleven and had dinner in a nice square with chairs and tables that didn’t belong to any restaurant.

Roppongi Hills

After dinner we went to the hotel, a different one than the previous couple of days. It was called Chiyoda Inn, located in Arakawa and it was a bit more expensive (about 85 €/night) but much better. The next day would be a very special one to me and any anime fan: we would visit Akihabara!

Akihabara

I have mentioned in previous articles that going to Japan was a childhood dream for me and an important part of that dream was to visit Akihabara. If you don’t know about it, Akihabara is the electronic district of Tokyo, a paradise for any video games/electronics/anime fan! As a proof of her love and patience, Helena agreed to spend the whole day in there. So basically we arrived at around 10AM and confirmed the view that I expected to find in there: massive buildings, covered in ads for video games and anime outside; inside there were usually several floors, each floor with a different theme/purpose. For example, comics stores had usually one gender or demographics per floor; including hentai for all the tastes (I will leave the details to your imagination).

I felt like a kid in Akihabara. I lost count of how many books, games, electronics and anime stores I visited that day. I especially loved to see the action figures for anime TV series I loved when I was a kid. Unfortunately those were very expensive so I didn’t buy any (around 80 € for a small one).

Picture of buildings in Akihabara

Buildings in Akihabara

Some of the buildings’ floors were actually amusement arcades with a great variety of games, from classics like Dance Dance Revolution (in which the local players completely blew our minds with their speed and accuracy) but also more modern ones like guitar hero or some XBox dancing game using the Kinect. Helena played her favorite video game — Tekken — hitting the buttons so hard that the other players around us thought Godzilla was coming to town again. I just played some Guitar Hero clone.

In the evening we also went to a Maid Café — a café where the waitresses are dressed in traditional French maid costumes and treat customers as their “masters”. We were heading to some less expensive one that was mentioned on our guide book and found a “maid” in the street getting people to go to her café. I thought that she would take us to the one I was looking for but she took us to a different one on the other side of the block instead. So once inside the café, there was a minimum consumption policy of around 15 € — if I remember correctly — and, obviously, prices were high. We were hungry so we asked for a menu that included a drink and a piece of cake only to find that the juice we ordered was in a very small glass and the cake was okayish in size but the price was rather “justified” by the anime drawings made in topping on the dishes as you can see in the picture. The maid was “pleasing us” just when she delivered the cake and made us mimic some “kawaii” gesture and words to magically make the cake more tasty.

Picture of a cake with Shin-chan drawn in topping.

Only Shin-chan could save us from this ripoff!

The feeling was very strange. I love a lot of things in the Otaku culture that might seem strange to people but maid cafés is not one of them.

In the end of the day, we bought some souvenirs for our family (I bought a Japanese whiskey bottle for my father which was not expensive at all but was really good!) and went back to the hotel but our geek journey wasn’t finished for the next day we would visit Odaiba but that’s a story for another day.

to be continue…

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 6: Tokyo vol. I

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 5: Takayama.

On August 17, 2012, at around 5pm we finally arrived in Tokyo for the second half of our trip. We stayed in a western style hotel in the Ikebukuro district which was the cheapest of the entire trip but it was in the basement, with a very tiny bathroom (I had to lean in order to shower without bumping my head).

Best rāmen in Tokyo!


We found the best rāmen place while exploring Ikebukuro in our first night. For the first time we used the machine at the door for ordering. You put the money in, choose the dish and it returns a ticket that you have to give to the waiter. This way waiters don’t have to handle money. Pretty smart!
In this place, I ordered a different kind of rāmen. The noodles didn’t have any soup but there were rather two extra bowls with a different sauce each. Since I didn’t know how to eat that in the beginning, I asked a man that was sitting nearby how to do it and he explained and invited us to join his table. He was maybe under 50 and could speak a bit of English; as most of the Japanese people we met, he was very curious to know about us, where we came from, etc. and then he said something like “Tokyo is very expensive! It is a shame my cousins are staying with me and my wife and I have no extra room for you but I give you my number and the next time you come to Tokyo you can stay at my place! By the way, I can drive you around after dinner if you want, my car is nearby…”. This could be seen as creepy from a Western point of view but I truly believe he was sincerely being nice. We were tired anyway so we kindly declined and went to the hotel as a new intensive week was about to start.

Shinjuku

Tokyo is a HUGE city. It’s more like a set of cities so we decided to explore one or two districts each day if we could. Thus, the next day was a very big one! We decided to go to the Shinjuku district and visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building with the purpose of seeing the landscape from the top. The view was impressive: buildings and more buildings spread until the horizon, giving us a good idea of the dimensions of the city.

They rebuilt fast after Godzilla!

After coming back down from the Metropolitan building we had to wait for a while because of the thunderstorm and the heavy rain that had formed meanwhile. Luckily we found that there were what seemed to be underground streets so we proceeded to our next destination: the Square Enix Store!

While we were looking for it, another very Japanese thing happened. I couldn’t find the store so I asked a young man who was entering a restaurant (it was lunch time) if he knew where it was. He explained where it was but then postponed his lunch a bit and walked with us for a while until we were at the store! Go to a city like London and ask someone where something is and you’ll see the difference.

Harajuku and Shibuya

After visiting the Square Enix Store we headed to Harajuku, the young and hip district known for its Gothic Lolitas. We took some photos of street artists and funky things we found in the streets and walked further south to Shibuya.

Harajuku’s street art!

Whenever you see videos of Tokyo, there is a good chance you will see Shibuya Crossing, supposedly the world’s busiest crossing. Our first impression was that we expected it to be somehow bigger. It is indeed packed. It’s amazing the number of people crossing when the pedestrian traffic light is green and then give way for the cars. It was also amazing to see the scene in that same cross in Resident Evil: Afterlife after we had been there. Luckily we didn’t experience a zombie outburst.

Next to the crossing there’s the statue of the famous dog Hachikō. Being the good tourists we are, we took the typical picture next to it 🙂

Next to Hachikō!

Kabuki-Chō

After that we passed a bit by Kabuki-Chō, the red light and yakuza district where we saw many love hotels and other funky things but the craziest thing I managed to do was to be able to change a pair of sneakers that Helena bought in one store in Shibuya by a different color in another branch of the store in Kabuki-Chō. Pretty bad-ass!

And that is all for the first day in Tokyo! I will try not to take too long to post the rest of the trip…

to be continue…

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 5: Takayama

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 4: Nagoya and Hikone.

After Hikone we headed to Takayama, it was August the 15th, 2012. The scenery was beautiful, you will read in guides that Takayama is located in the Japanese Alps, that means beautiful dense forests, creeks and mountains. Bullet trains in Japan were very comfortable and fast but it was actually nice that the train that took us to Takayama was not a high-speed one, this way we could better appreciate landscape.
Our seats were right after the driver’s cab, he wore white gloves and we were intrigued with these gestures he did: about four times per minute he would raise his hand, point it to a railway sign and then to some of the panel’s instruments which looked like some kind of ritual…

Japan 2012

Driver waving: a mystery to be solved!

Japan 2012

The Japanese Alps

When we arrived at Takayama, it was already night and we had to walk about 20 minutes to our ryokan: Sosuke. The room was about 50 €/person/night, it was much nicer than the one in Nagoya but less fancy than the expensive one at Kinosaki Onsen.
Since we had waken up early, walked all over the castle area in Hikone, and ridden the train for more than 5 hours, all with a smothering heat and humidity, we decided to grab dinner at a supermarket nearby and eat at our room. After that I just laid back and watched Japanese TV as they have quite some interesting TV shows there!

The next morning we went to a local street market. It wasn’t as impressive as our Lonely Planet Guide mentioned so we walked all over town, visiting some temples, traditional stores and even a small museum. Wood craftsmanship is a traditional art in Takayama so there were really beautiful wood carvings but we also entered a very interesting shop with the most original figures hand-made with bolts, nuts, washes, etc. We ended up buying a small donkey figure which we named Giló (just a funny sounding Portuguese name).

Takayama

Our donkey Giló doesn’t look this dangerous but it is also awesome!

Takayama

Beautiful bridge in a temple in Takayama

Hida Furukawa

During the evening that same day, we also took the train to a small town nearby, called Hida Furukawa which has some canals going through it with giant Koi fish. There were small wooden boxes in front of the canals with small bags of pieces of bread. Each bag 100 ¥ if I remember correctly and since it’s Japan and everybody is honest, there was no security mechanism whatsoever in the boxes to guarantee people paid (and yes, in case you’re wondering, we did pay). I love Koi fish, so I really enjoyed this small trip.

Koi fish in Hida Furukawa

Koi fish in Hida Furukawa

Koi fish in Hida Furukawa

Koi fish are great!

Koi fish in Hida Furukawa

It’s a beauty!

After a visit to some of the Hida Furukawa’s temples, we headed back to our ryokan in Takayama only to find some kind of ceremony in the entrance of a fancy hotel nearby. People were playing traditional songs and dancing in a circle with a strange participant: someone with a costume of what looked to be Godzilla… 🙂

Takayama

I thought Godzilla liked Tokyo, maybe he retired to Takayama for the relaxed environment!

Hida No Sato

The next morning we went to Hida No Sato (or Hida Folk Village), an open air museum about 20 minutes walking from our hotel which turned out not to be so easy to make because we took a wrong turn and it was freaking hot!
Anyway, we eventually got to Hida No Sato and it was totally worth the walk and the price (about 10 €). It had many traditional houses which belonged to several parts of the region and had been reassembled there. Inside the houses there were texts and pictures showing how the villagers used to live. We saw pictures of men carrying tree logs (which looked bigger then themselves) down a snowy mountain; it was a very hard life.

Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village), Takayama

Us, passing as locals in the museum!

Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village), Takayama

A traditional house of the region

Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village), Takayama

A gate in Hida No Sato

After Hida No Sato, we took the train to Tokyo. It would be the 2nd half of our trip and we would spend an amazing week at this great city but that is the subject of the next post.

to be continued…

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 4: Nagoya and Hikone

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 3: Kinosaki Onsen.
This series of articles has been dragging but I need to make an effort and finish it, especially because I have had such a great feedback.

Our original plans for Kinosaki Onsen were to go to the beach to the north of it but it was raining a lot and we decided instead to start the trip to Takayama but it was just too far away so we chose a point in the middle of the route to stay: Nagoya.

Nagoya

I had read on our guide that Nagoya didn’t have much to see and it was right. We found a ryokan to stay by choosing one from the list we got at the tourist information office at Nagoya’s train station and calling them to check for the availability.
This ryokan, which I cannot really remember the name (and I don’t have my notes here unfortunately) was a bit cheaper than the others but of course, it wasn’t half as good as the others.
The room was big and with a Japanese garden in a patio but while it looked nice, the garden turned out to be composed of artificial plants and the tatamis, futan, etc. also didn’t have the same quality as the other ryokans we stayed at.

Our room's plastic garden in Nagoya

Zen fake: always green, never ending relaxation

On Toilets

The worst though, was the toilet. In the previous article I forgot to tell you how cool the toilet was in Morizuya ryokan. Yes, it was one of those high tech Japanese toilets. When I opened the door to the toilet’s cabinet, the toilet opened it lid automagically! It also included a heated seat but there was no toilet paper… Instead, I had a control pad mounted in the wall next to it, illustrated with pictographs of what the buttons did. See, one doesn’t need toilet paper in Japan… think water jets. I can tell you that you’ll feel very fresh! In comparison, we’re in the dark ages of hygiene here in the West. I could go on about how I think they got smart computer vision algorithms who can find the exact spot where to point the water jet but I’m not.

Hi-tech toilet controls

Hit the right button and you’ll feel reborn!

Anyway, this was not the case in Nagoya’s ryokan. You would think that with such advanced technology in fields for which innovation isn’t the first thing we think about, I expected the “beginner’s” level to be a regular, western toilet but it was in fact a squat one. I still tried to utilize it but my lazy, western body doesn’t have the balance required. Luckily there was a 7-Eleven around the corner with a regular toilet and very clean (as everything in Japan).

During the evening we didn’t know what to see so we just took a walk until the Nagoya Noh Theater which has a nice samurai statue outside.

Japan 2012

Nice Samurai statue outside Nagoya Noh Theater

Hikone Castle

The next day, we headed to Takayama but we did a little detour to visit Hikone Castle. I love Japanese architecture so I wanted to visit a Japanese castle during our trip but we discarded the famous Himeji Castle because it is under restoration until 2014. Hikone Castle was the alternative we chose, it was conveniently located on our way to Takayama.
Hikone Castle is a small one but is one of the few which hasn’t been destroyed in any war or any other tragic events throughout history. I also kept thinking “I think I sneaked into this place in Tenchu“!

Hikone's Castle

The Magnificent Hikone Castle

Hikone's Castle

Simply beautiful

Hikone's Castle garden

Relaxing at the garden on the back of Hikone Castle

Since our backpacks were very heavy, it was crazy hot&humid and there were too many steps to climb, we kindly asked for the tickets office to keep them, which they kindly did even though it couldn’t fit any of the lockers.
We had to queue for a little while at the entrance of the castle and chatted a bit with the guard there. He was very nice and knew some Portuguese words (there are a lot of Japanese immigrants in Brasil and he had family there) and said that Helena’s eyes looked a bit Japanese. So far she’s been told that she looks Turkish, American (someone said it was because of her freckles… go figure) and now Japanese! She’s a citizen of the World for sure, let’s see when they say she looks Swedish or African 🙂

Hikone Castle was very nice and quick to see but the ticket also gave access to the gardens behind the castle which were very beautiful and relaxing. The town’s mascot is a cute samurai cat called Neko-nyan, be sure to take a picture with it if you go there.

Hikone

Neko-nyan loves taking pictures with Western tourists!

After Hikone, we finally headed to Takayama, the Japanese Alps. I will hopefully not take that long to write about it so stay tuned and enjoy some more pics meanwhile!

to be continued…